Using data science to return people to the labor force

Despite persistent unemployment in the United States, millions of jobs are hard to fill due to a lack of qualified applicants. While community college and training organizations seek to equip people with the skills required for these openings, it’s a moving target as the American economy rapidly changes.

The newly launched National Center for Opportunity Engineering & Analysis at the Computation Institute—a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory—will use the latest computation and data science tools to help close the skills gap, reduce economic inequality and provide new ways to search for training connected to employment and career opportunities.

“Societal challenges of this scale require us to combine data science with knowledge of how labor markets work. This is very much the kind of problem our Computational Social Science initiative is designed for,” said David Nirenberg, dean of the Division of Social Sciences. “We look forward to collaborating with the new center.”

The center will integrate disparate job experience, education and training, and employment and labor data into new computational models in partnership with numerous organizations and other institutions. The goal is to provide higher-quality data that can assist both existing programs as well as foster new forms of economic and social science research.

“We have applied advanced data science to large-scale and small-scale problems in groundbreaking work, ranging from genomics to dark matter, and these same capacities are used daily for consumer sites and new apps,” said Michael Franklin, the Liew Family Chair of Computer Science and senior advisor to the Provost for computation and data. “Yet we have not applied this computational power to help people find education and training aligned with the quickly evolving job market or help them make career choices aligned with current trend data.”

The center is a joint partnership with the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a California non-profit that brings together academics, government agencies, corporations, community colleges and workforce training organizations to more effectively solve pervasive problems. The new center will work with other units at the University of Chicago and organizations around the country, including the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego.

“This center capitalizes on cross-cutting science, expertise and computing to make a meaningful impact on job seekers and the economy,” said Rick Stevens, Argonne associate laboratory director and a Computation Institute senior fellow. “We welcome the opportunity to forward this new collaboration by providing scientific leadership and computing resources as part of the center’s future efforts.”

With this new capacity, economic and social science researchers can study finer-grained data about jobs, training offerings and unemployment to guide policy and investments by local governments. Additionally, job search sites could create better “dating service”-like matching algorithms that pair job seekers with available training aligned with positions they may not otherwise discover.

"We look forward to helping to build NCOEA into a national resource to vastly improve the connections between education and training and the placement of individuals into current and evolving jobs and to advance careers,” said Ilkay Altintas, chief data science officer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. “The data problems are complex, but much can be done with big data and other methods to improve upon traditional practice.”

Some of this work is already in progress at UChicago and Argonne and will be unified under the center. For example, the Workforce Data Initiative, a partnership between the CI’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy and the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Economic Council, launched the Skills Cooperative Research Database in summer 2016. Likewise, the National Laboratory for Education Transformation will place into the center its ongoing work with community colleges and community college systems focused on designing new technologies to assist in regional matches between jobseekers, training programs and employers.

“I see this center becoming the premier place for how we look at labor and education data, as well as a place for constructing opportunities to reduce economic inequality,” said Gordon Freeman, president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation. “The center is a place where sophisticated computational modeling, focused on real problems in labor, education and job-seeking, can turn into scalable solutions capable of sustaining change. This need is especially acute regionally where specific adaptations are necessary due to local differences in demographics, education and employment composition.”

The center’s founding members at UChicago also include James Evans, professor of sociology and Computation Institute senior fellow; Ioana Marinescu, assistant professor of economics at the Harris School of Public Policy; and Matt Gee, senior research fellow at the Center for Data Science and Public Policy.